The Gee's Bend eLecture

The Gee’s Bend; The History, the Inspiration, and the Quilts


Gee’s Bend, Alabama is a rural community of about 700 people, most of whom are Africa American, located on a fifteen mile stretch of land near the Alabama river. The area is named for Joseph Gee, who established a cotton plantation there in 1816. In 1845, Mark Pettway bought these estates, which included thousands of acres of land and 101 enslaved people. Pettway forced slaves from his north Carolina home to walk across four states to Alabama and many of these people in Gee’s Bend are descendants of them. A large number of them still bear the Pettway’s last night.

After the American civil war the majority of the freed slaves became tenant farmers and remained in the area. During the great depression (1929-39) the price of cotton plummeted, causing economic strife in Gee’s Bend. It was identified as one of the poorest towns in the nation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Gee’s Bend in 1965 and encouraged citizens to register to vote and join him in a march to Selma, Alabama, many Gee’s Bend women were jailed for these actions. For over a century, the people o Gee’s Bend has come together to overcome the struggles of poverty, isolation, and prejudice. They and the area are now recognized worldwide as a center of artistic production and a symbol of community perseverance and pride.

Quiltmaking History of the Gee’s Bend

The Gee’s Bend first got noticed in the 1960’s the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative that produced quilts and other sewn products for department stores was established. The Bee provided the women with income and a sense of independence during the tumultuous civil rights era. In the mid 1990’s while researching African American fold are in the south, art collector William Arnett became interested in the history of quilt making. After seeing a photograph of Gee’s Bend quilt maker Annie Mae Young standing with one her quilts, he visited her and the community. They organized an exhibition, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend in 2002. The overwhelming positive response to the show led to an entire quilt-making era. Since the 2002 exhibition, artists have been inspired to sew and older quilt makers who had abandoned the practice began to take it up again. In the current exhibition, Gee’s Bend, The Architecture of the Quilt, many of these newer works are showcases. This exhibition is currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from September 16, 2008 to December 14, 2008. There is no special admission fee for this exhibition so check it out! http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/311.html

For more history on the Gee’s Bend check out this site:

A Look at One of the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers

Mary Lee Bendolph American, born 1935

Mary Lee Bendolph is the seventh of sixteen children. She has spent her entire life in gee’s Bend. She learned how to quilt from her mother, Aoler. She became pregnant when she was 14-years old and that prevented her from going past 6th grade in school. She married Rubin Bendolph in 1955 and their family grew include 8 children. She worked in various text-tile jobs, mostly making uniforms. Since retiring in 1992 she has found more time to quilt. She gathers designs and ideas by looking at the world around her. For her materials, she prefers fabric cut form used clothing because it avoids wastefulness and because she appreciates the “love and spirit” in old cloth.

J.R. Moehringer wrote a story on Mary Lee Bendolph. He won The Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for it. Read the story Cross Over at http://www.pulitzer.org/works/2000,Feature+Writing

To See a Video of Mary Lee click here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BxGvFxSjYE

For more Information about the Women of the Gee’s Bend check out this site:


For the women of the Gee’s Bend it was about pride, independence, survival, and community. They drew inspiration from the world around them and the materials they had. They drew ideas from what they saw like people’s clothes, churches, barns, clotheslines, land, airplanes, and colors. They primarily used old clothes as materials. Work-clothes quilts are very common. They use old work clothes to make quilts like denim, overalls, or cotton and flannel.

re are some quotes from some of the Gee’s Bend women
“I can walk outsides and look around in the yard and see ideas all around the front and back of my house.
”Mary Lee Bendolph

“I see the barn, and I get an idea to make a quilt. I can walk outside and look around in the yard and see ideas all around the front and the back of my house. Then, sitting down looking at a quilt, I get another idea from the quilt I already made.”
Mary Lee Bendolph

“I always did like a “Bricklayer”. It made me think about what I always wanted. Always did want a brick house.”
Loretta Pettway

“We came from cotton fields, we came through hard times, and we look back and see what all these people before us have done. They brought us here, and to say thank you is not enough.”
Louisiana P. Bendolph

“ I came to realize that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and piece a quilt together.” Loretta P. Bennett

“You know, we had hard times. We worked in the fields, we picked cotton, and sometimes we had it and sometimes we didn’t. And so you look at your quilt and you say, “this is some of the old clothes that I wore in the fields. I wore them out, but they’re still doing good.”
Lucy Mingo

Images of the Gee’s Bend, which lead to inspiration of patterns and designs

The Quilts of the Gee’s Bend

Quilt Basics:
• Most quilts are made of three layers: a top that is decorative, a middle layer of soft batting that adds thickness and provides warmth, and a back.
• These three layers are stitched, or quilted, together.
• The quilts included in this presentation fall into one of two categories: pieced and appliqué. Pieced quilts have a top made of bits of fabric stitched, or pieced together. Appliqué quilts have tops that consist of background blocks of fabric with cut-out shapes of fabric sewn on top.

Basic Building Blocks of Quilts

Names of these basic quilt patterns from right to left and then down

1. "Housetop"-also called "Pin in a Pen" "Hog Pen" or "chicken Coop"
2. Four-patch"
3. "Log Cabin"
4. "Roman Stripes"
5. "Birds in Flight"
6. "Bricklayer" or "Courthouse Steps"
7. "Nine-patch"


Freedom Quilting Bee
- sewing cooperative established in Rehoboth (just north of Gee’s Bend) in 1966 employed women from the local area who produced quilts and other sewn products for department stores in the north.
Quilting- the sewing that holds the top layer, middle filling layer (batting), and the bottom layer (back). It makes the quilt more durable and also traps air between the layers of cloth, which proves insulation and warmth.
Appliqué quilt- a quilt with a top made of cut-out pieces of fabric that have been sewn on top of background fabrics. Appliqué is the French word for applied.
Pieced quilt- patchwork quilt; a quilt whose top is made form bits of fabric stitched together to form patterns and borers often with a geometric motif.
Nine-patch pattern- a square quilt block made of three rows of three squares
Work-clothes quilt- a quilt made of reused work clothes such as denim pants and overalls, and cotton or flannel shirts
Block- a rectangular or square section of a quilt.
Strings- among the Gee’s Bend quilt makers, a term used to describe wedge-shaped pieces of fabric.
Asymmetry- a lack of exact repetition between the opposite sides of a form.
Reflective symmetry- (also called bilateral or mirror symmetry) when size, shape, and arrangement of parts of the left and right sides, or the top and bottom of a composition or object are the same in relation to an imaginary center dividing line.
Value- degree of lightness on a scale of grays from black to white
Complementary colors- pairs of contrasting colors: red and green, yellow and violet, blue and orange.
Contrast- a design principal that involves the use of opposite effects or shapes near each other to add tension or frame to a work of art.

Creating a sketch for a Quilt
Any Grade from 1st to 8th grade can participate. You can make the requirements more or less extensive.

Recommended standards:

Pennsylvania Academic Standards for the Arts and Humanities

9.1.8.A. Know and use the elements principles of each art form to create works in the arts and humanities
9.1.8.C Identify and use comprehensive vocabulary within each of the arts forms
9.1.8.L. Identify, explain and analyze common themes, forms and techniques from works in the arts
9.2.8.A. explain the historical, cultural and social context of an individual work in the arts.
9.2.8.D. analyze a work of art from its historical and cultural perspective.
9.2.8. E. Analyze how historical events and culture impact forms, techniques and purposes of works in the arts

Piece of white paper
At least 2 different types or color paper

1. Take at least 2 different color papers and divide them up using your ruler and pencil however you like, keeping in mind geometric shapes
2. After the papers are divided up cut out the shapes
3. Take the shapes and try different combinations of patterns and designs on the white piece of paper. Keep in mind the basic quilt designs for inspiration or anything you might see that catches your eye
4. Once you have a good design glue them down to the white piece of paper.

Below are some examples:

More Internet Resources

Gee's Bend, The Library of Congress' American Memory website has photographs of Gee's Bend from the 1930's ( Do a search for "Gee's Bend")

Lesson Plans based on the photographs of the Gee's Bend

History of the Gee's Bend

Online NewsHour Article

1 comment:

  1. a very interesting project, the patterns are stunning, abstracted from nature and their lives, wow